By the time Arsenal left Goodison Park last season, their league campaign was in tatters. Having begun February at the top of the league, the season began to unravel with a 5-1 demolition at the hands of Liverpool. Upon their return to Merseyside, in early April, they were a distant fourth, and Everton’s 3-0 victory that day took the Toffees to within a single point of the Gunners.
It was a humbling defeat that served merely to confirm the extent to which the wheels had come off for Arsenal. It wasn’t just that they lost, but the manner of the defeat. They were 2-0 down at half-time and never looked like recovering in the second period. They were bettered tactically and physically.
One of the game’s most memorable episodes saw Olivier Giroud pulling out of a challenge with Gareth Barry in the Everton box to the despair of the Gunners faithful. It was a moment that epitomised the difference in the desire and commitment between the two sides.
So when the fixture list produced a repeat encounter just two games into the season, it presented a unique opportunity to compare the progress of Arsene Wenger’s team. Everton’s major pieces of business in the summer had been signing Barry and striker Romelu Lukaku permanently, so they were, at least in footballing terms, as consistent as you could ask for. The inclusions of Steven Pienaar and Phil Jagielka were their only changes between the two games; both had missed the previous fixture through injury.
Arsenal, meanwhile, have undergone a more dramatic upheaval. New arrivals Calum Chambers, Mathieu Debuchy and Alexis Sanchez all started, and the club captaincy had changed hands from the now-departed Thomas Vermaelen to Mikel Arteta. However, the most significant change that Arsenal fans and players alike were hoping to see reflected in the scoreline was the removal of the major mental block that had afflicted the club for the previous nine years.
The Gunners’ success in both the FA Cup and the Community Shield had laid the demons of a long, trophyless spell well and truly to rest. Some of the team’s most established players—like Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey—had spent the vast majority of their professional careers at the club and had endured countless near misses and disappointments. The two titles won in the recent months should have brought about a sea change in the mentality of the club.
At least, that was the theory. On Saturday, Arsenal players once again trudged down the Goodison tunnel at half-time finding themselves 2-0 down. Once again, Steven Naismith was among the scorers. Once again, they had looked second-best in every department, with their defensive looking particularly vulnerable to Lukaku's physical threat.
However, the verve and spirit they displayed to earn a draw in the dying seconds was an encouraging demonstration of improvement. It was the type of never-say-die attitude that Arsenal had sorely missed over the preceding seasons. Fittingly, it was Giroud—a player who has been beset with confidence issues throughout his time at the Emirates—that put the memories of the drubbing last time out to rest, stealing in ahead of Jagielka to head home the winner.
Of course, the major mitigation in such an experimental comparison on the same fixture is the respective forms of the teams. Arsenal have a habit of starting brightly before fading after the flurry of fixtures over Christmas, which means any conclusions drawn must be taken with a pinch of salt.
However, as a litmus test of how Arsenal are shaping up for the season ahead, the signs are promising. Their new signings are still finding their feet—particularly Alexis Sanchez, who made a largely anonymous contribution to the game from an unfamiliar false nine role—and the club is still adjusting to the loss of Vermaelen.
Manchester City’s vibrant display against Liverpool two days later, and Chelsea’s perfect start to the season mean that Arsene Wenger’s men are already rank outsiders for the title. But while this season may not be their year, the Goodison experiment has demonstrated them moving in the right direction.